Land & Environment

Genetic Diversity Key to Ecosystem Restoration says USU Ecologist

Following a devastating wildfire, flood or other disturbance, land managers scramble to restore affected areas as quickly and as closely as possible to their original condition. Goals in such endeavors include selecting plant materials that can be established rapidly, that will persist for the long-term and will restore a functioning ecosystem.

However, current restoration approaches often fall short of these aims, says Utah State University ecologist Karin Kettenring.

“These approaches often lack the ability to restore plant genetic diversity,” says Kettenring, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences and the USU Ecology Center. “Ecosystems work best when all species are present, but also when there’s substantial variation within a species. These factors, together, restore a fully functioning ecosystem.”

Without biodiversity at all levels, she says, ecosystems can’t provide the level of services — including nutrient processing, flood mitigation and provision of wildlife habitat — on which we all depend.

Kettenring and colleagues from The Ohio State University, the University of Florida and Germany’s Institute of Freshwater Ecology explore the need for a “genetic diversity-ecosystem function” approach to ecological restoration in a review article published in the Feb. 2014 issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Typical restoration approaches employed by land managers include the use of “cultivars” — plant varieties chosen or bred to perform well under restoration conditions — or by sourcing plant materials locally.

“Each of these approaches has benefits,” Kettenring says. “Cultivars optimized for rapid plant establishment are often selected for highly disturbed areas. Local plants, because they’re well-suited to local environmental conditions, may have a better chance of persisting for the long-term.”

But neither of these approaches, she says, necessarily ensures ecosystem functions and services will be restored.

“To restore an ecosystem that can withstand future disturbances and resist invasions, you need lots and lots of genotypes,” Kettenring says. “And that’s an aspect of biodiversity that’s not as obvious. Variation within individual species is as important as having many different species reintroduced.”

She and her colleagues advocate integrating existing restoration approaches with a genetic diversity approach that leads to effective restoration.

“Sourcing propagules — that is, parts of plants that give rise to new plants — from the wild can be costly and logistically difficult,” Kettenring says. “Combining this approach with other approaches could yield optimal results in a more cost-effective manner.”

The USU scientist is exploring these ideas with her own applied research on phragmites, an invasive grass spreading rapidly throughout Great Salt Lake wetlands.

“Developing effective restoration techniques that account for variation within a species is especially important for Great Salt Lake wetlands because they’re naturally species-poor,” Kettenring says. “We have many issues and questions to consider.”

Related links:

Contact: Karin Kettenring, 435-797-2546,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

USU ecologist Karin Kettenring

Ecologist Karin Kettenring, assistant professor in USU's Department of Watershed Sciences and the USU Ecology Center, says plant genetic diversity is key to ecosystem restoration.

the cover of the Journal of Applied Ecology

Kettenring and colleagues published a review paper in the Feb. 2014 issue of 'Journal of Applied Ecology' exploring a ‘genetic diversity-ecosystem function’ approach to ecological restoration.


Research 545stories Ecology 138stories Plants 119stories Ecosystems 101stories Land Management 67stories Genetics 56stories Restoration 30stories

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